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Fetishizing Secrecy

Have you noticed recently that America has developed something of a secrecy fetish?

I’m not talking about the government specifically — secrecy at the expense of the citizenry creates a massive power asymmetry, and it’s natural therefore that any reasonably unscrupulous politician or bureaucrat (meaning almost all of them) would want to keep things secret from the people. Metastasized secrecy within American’s national security state is neither new nor unknown to me.  What I’m talking about instead is a secrecy fetish among we, the people.

I started thinking about this earlier this month, when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA’s illegal domestic spying operation.  I was struck by how many people describing something that’s not much more than a bulked-up non disclosure agreement spoke of some sacred secrecy “oath.”  The meme has really taken hold — Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan is now explicitly demanding that CIA employees “Honor The Oath,” thereby implying that a secrecy agreement is of significance equal to a CIA employee’s (actual) oath to protect and defend the Constitution.  Doubtless many journalists will uncritically regurgitate Brennan’s terminology, never pausing to consider whether there even is such a secrecy “oath,” or whether it should be treated as remotely important as an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

And then I read about Obama’s Insider Threat Program, his policy for getting all government employees to inform on each other and equating all leaks with aiding and abetting enemies.  Here, see for yourself how insane and Stazi-like this initiative really is.  It almost reads like a parody.  But it isn’t.  It’s the behavior of a paranoid government that has become psychologically obsessed with the value of the secrets it hoards.  And what’s at least as disturbing as the program itself is how little attention it’s gotten in the press or among the public.  Again, too many Americans have come to accept that massive secrecy isn’t just normal, but in fact desirable.

It isn’t.  Secrecy is not one of the primary pillars of the strength of a democracy.  Fetishizing the importance of secrecy at the expense of a focus on the Constitution, the rule of law, and transparency is like thinking your overall health is determined more by how much coffee you can consume than it is by food, water, and exercise.

Secrecy is fundamentally antithetical to democracy and should be treated with great suspicion.  Small amounts are a necessary evil.  Beyond that, it is poison.  And we have become addicted to it.  Our addiction has made us lose sight of what really makes us strong:  the Constitution; and just and sane policies; and our commitment to being a good nation instead of a priapic obsession with being a Great one.  East Germany relied on secrecy for its strength.  So did Communist Russia.  Do want to use those states as role models?  Is it not obvious that America would be stronger with less secrecy, not with more?

You would think all this would be pretty obvious, and yet the army has now acknowledged that it is blocking access to The Guardian, the paper that has been most aggressively reporting on the NSA’s domestic spying operation.  Think about this.  The army has apparently decided that the institution will be stronger if it can keep soldiers ignorant.  “Army Strong” is now “Ignorance is Strength.”  Can War is Peace and Freedom is Slavery be far behind.

By the way, the army calls its enforced ignorance campaign “Network Hygiene.”  I really thought Disposition Matrix for an assassination program was about as good as it could get, but Network Hygiene is providing some solid competition.

Note to self:  when you have to come up with nomenclature that sounds not just Orwellian, but like a parody of Orwell, to try to justify what you’re doing, it’s not a good sign.  You might want to take a step back and ask why you’re trying so hard to obfuscate.  It’s almost like your conscience is trying to tell you something.

It might help restore some perspective if we recognize that other governments are not as secrecy obsessed as ours.  Compared to European countries and many others, American is draconian about punishing leaks.  Are our secrets really so much more valuable?  Do we really rely on secrecy so much more for our strength?  If so, it’s not a good sign.

We have to remember that the government wants us to believe that secrecy is a paramount value, that secrecy is a fundamental source of our society’s strength, that maintaining it is a vital obligation subject to sacred oaths and requiring that we inform on each other if we suspect someone has deviated.  As I noted above, secrecy does give the government great power — power over the very citizenry secrecy enfeebles.  It’s important that we recognize the self-interest behind the government’s “Secrecy is Sacred!” sales job, and not buy into the government’s mindset.

What’s happened is on a high level pretty simple.  Whether it’s more cynical or more clinical, our government has lost its collective mind.  We the people can do an intervention and help restore the government to sanity.  But not if we believe the government’s bullshit and share in its delusions.

P.S.  Watch this short and outstanding take from Chris Hayes on how much of a scam secrecy really is.

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Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA's Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, earning his black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center along the way. Eisler's bestselling thrillers have won the Barry Award and the Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller of the Year, have been included in numerous "Best Of" lists, and have been translated into nearly twenty languages. Eisler lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and, when he's not writing novels, blogs about torture, civil liberties, and the rule of law.